Once More

Their Fight…But Our Legacy: The New Battle for Fallujah

Once again Fallujah is ground zero for a terrible fight over Iraq’s future. The State Department’s former man on the ground, John Kael Weston, remembers the last time battle raged in the streets and what we can do now—for our friends and former collaborators.


Once again, another impending “battle for Fallujah”—but this one without U.S. troops fighting in its deadly streets. More masked gunman, more burned buildings, more bad headlines, including English Pravda’s: “Falluja, Symbol of Iraq’s Unending Tragedy.”

Not propaganda in this case.

On New Year’s Day, I received an email from a close Iraqi friend in the city currently under siege. Charismatic, opinionated and connected, he provided an update and made a plea.

Dear brother

because of the wrong policy of al maliki, fallujah is under direct

control of (DAISH). insurgents burned all the police headqarter and

mayor office, al qaeda flags is over all the goverment buildings….

all the citizens of falluja start to leave the town heading to outside…

we are looking for help


The “looking for help” part hit hardest. A personal SOS in a country run by the Shia government we had installed after our unnecessary invasion, now led by a sectarian leader we supported—and Iraqis got stuck with: Prime Minister Nuri al Maliki.

In November 2004 Fallujah served as Ground Zero of the biggest battle of the Iraq War. U.S. Marines and soldiers fought street-to-street then, leaving over 100 Americans dead and many more wounded. Iraqi civilians, with tens of thousands displaced, suffered too as the U.S. attempted to rebuild their rubbled and barricaded hometown. New schools. Clinics. Police stations. Mayor’s office. Nation building carried out at the micro-level. Washington termed our endless and thankless task counterinsurgency—and Anbaris made good insurgents, very good insurgents. Fallujah has long been the most rebellious city in Iraq, well before U.S. Marines moved in. (Ask the British.)

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I was the State Department official responsible for U.S. political strategy in the City of Mosques and Anbar province, arriving in 2004 and not leaving until 2007. I returned briefly in 2009. Beyond Fallujah itself, fully one-third of all U.S. troop casualties occurred in Iraq’s vast western desert we called home. Many Americans killed before the age of twenty. I knew several. I knew even more Iraqis, our collaborators, who died. Kamal, Hamza, Khudairi, Sami, Najm, Abbas, among others. Assassinated in front of their families, in front of schools, in front of mosques. We had infantry platoons, HESCO barriers, armored trucks, and concrete walls to protect us. They didn’t.

Marine friends, all ranks and all mostly Anbar fighting alum, have been sending me emails as well. One senior officer, badly wounded in Falluja, said he was “heartbroken” given events in Iraq. Another, “I hate to see the unraveling of so much that we fought for.” A third asked, “So much blood and treasure just so Falluja could revert?” And a former Army sergeant who arrived in Falluja just after our invasion: “All those American lives for nothing?”

Tens of thousands of service members and veterans are closely watching how the Iraqi government and, more importantly, how our own leaders and commander in chief respond. “In vain” would be a tragic coda to the already tragic enough Iraq War with lasting consequences for our overstretched and soul-weary military after twelve-plus years of nonstop war.

What can we do now, since U.S. troops pulled out in late December 2011 and Washington’s dysfunctional political class is more focused on sequestration, fundraisers and reelection than a distant warfront? (Former Secretary of Defense Bob Gates’ book, Duty, only seems to reinforce the extent of rot in Washington, full of brittle, little people in big jobs.)

Not a lot, but certainly more than we are at present.

So far, the Obama administration has opted to provide Maliki with an arsenal of Hellfire missiles and plenty of drone surveillance imagery—with an Apache (our most macho model) armada on the way. An official spokesperson condemned the violence “in the strongest terms.” She urged the Iraqi government to work toward a political settlement based on “lessons” the U.S. itself learned across years of desert warfare in Iraq.

But such American rhetoric sounds hollow, even offensive, to Iraqi ears. Many Anbaris consider their prime minister to be an enemy too—granted, less so than Al Qaeda —a recipe for more political disintegration and distrust. Sunnis in Anbar find themselves caught between their own government, the one we backed, and the militants infiltrating from Syria’s civil war. Made-in-America missiles will inevitably kill civilians and have limited lasting or strategic effect.

We have better exports to offer.

Given the escalating political warfare between Sunni and Shia sects inside Iraq, we must help them choose the right words and actions, not resort to the use of the wrong weapons. A Hellfire-filled sky will only unleash more Hell, for all, a deadly tactical approach that will have damning long-term consequences. We should buttress cooperative tribes again, with names like Dulaim, Isawi, Al bu Issa, among others. Those tribal leaders who “awakened”—forming the so-called “Sons of Iraq” and were paid by us in stacks of Ben Franklins.

A two-track effort might realign enough of them to beat back Al Qaeda’s reenergized core. The fundamental U.S. interest in western Iraq remains the same: no epicenter for resurrected terrorists with designs and reach to further destabilize the country and region, but also to target Americans. A caliphate denied.

1) Get Maliki to produce concrete steps, starting with real political accommodations (Sunnis, for example, welcomed into senior positions and reintegrated in large numbers into the security forces). He could start by offering assurances to Dr. Rafe al-Isawi, a Fallujan and senior Sunni leader, banished from Baghdad. And he should publicly reject any Iranian military overture of assistance. Fallujans used to tell Marine leaders and me that the U.S. invasion had “handed Iraq to Iran on a golden platter.” Another Anbari friend, a former major in the city police force, put it this way. “Iraq today like a ship without captain … usa, should talking with mr. noory almalikiy and tell him that he is a leadr for all the iraqi people sunni, shiite and kordi all.”

2) Get an American statesman involved, even if the bench post-Richard Holbrooke is not that deep. Vice President Biden, a busy man, has been covering the Iraq file from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, with a discreet U.S. career Foreign Service ambassador in Baghdad. Not good enough. Now is not the time for lackadaisical, quiet and deferential diplomacy. Nor can CIA agents accomplish the task on their own, regardless of the revolving bags of cash—filled with dollars, I bet, not dinars.

Secretary of State John Kerry is mostly right to say this is “their fight” in Iraq. We should not send Marine corporals and captains back into Anbar province. Not only, however, is their national security at stake. Ultimately, so is ours. Iraqis did not ask to be invaded by us. (An Arabic proverb: “Think of the going-out before you enter.”) We found no WMD and broke open a new kind of Pandora’s sandbox. Iraqi civilians, Sunni and Shia alike, still pay the highest price for our unnecessary war—leaving almost twice as many dead in just the last year as the total U.S. KIA losses.

Colin Powell, who unwisely made the case for the Iraq invasion in UN Security Council testimony in 2003, termed the Iraq predicament another way: “you break it, you own it.”

Crucially, we must also be blunt with cooperative Anbaris. Fallujans told me how even Saddam Hussein feared Anbar’s tribes and their shifting allegiances, only visiting Fallujah once. A senior cleric in the city said, “Saddam had a dream he would be killed on the road between Fallujah and Ramadi.” Anbaris cannot have it both ways. Stand against the terrorists but not accept some of the prime minister’s concerns are legitimate and his insecurities have a basis. Anbar’s better future remains inside Iraq, not apart from it. Fallujans and their cousins across the province need to accept a new, different power equation after America’s painful, for them and for us, Red Dawn chapter (2003-2011) … provided Maliki moderates—and they do too in an enduring way.

A continued collective Washington, DC shrug, however, of “Their War (But with Our Hellfires)” is not a strategy. It’s a guarantee for worse weeks and months ahead.


At the height of the Bush Administration’s public war defending the Iraq invasion, Fallujah’ former mayor, Sheik Dhari (a senior Zobai tribal leader), asked me a blunt question.

“What did Iraq have to do with 9/11?”

We sat in downtown Fallujah, in a barricaded city council meeting room. Mosques towered outside, surrounded by razor wire.

“In my personal view, mayor, nothing,” I replied.

He concluded, “The terrorists came after you Americans invaded. You turned Iraq into your stadium to fight them.”

Iraq is still that stadium. We owe Iraqis something more than national nonchalance, even if we will not be sending in—nor should we—any more of our uniformed sons or daughters to aid the “Sons of Iraq” we made famous for a time.

The “Battle for Fallujah” Round Three will be an American legacy too. For a time—a long time—between 2003 and 2009, Fallujah was our fight. The last Marine, Staff Sergeant Mark Mangio, decamped in March 2009.

In many corners of Iraq’s City of Mosques, there will be places “Forever America”—where U.S. troops fell, dead, by the dozens and dozens in its violent streets. And where after Battles One and Two, many Americans befriended many Iraqis. Only they can “clear” Anbar for good. On its own, the mighty U.S. Marine Corps never could. A repeat “Bleed Fallujah, Bleed Fallujans” approach will fail. Been there, done that. Didn’t work. It won’t this time either. The red history of Anbar, and the rest of Iraq, will only get redder.